In major diplomatic win, Pakistan returns downed fighter pilot to India

Pakistan on Friday handed over pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman to India through Pakistan-India border in Wagah (Photo Courtesy – Pakistan Air Force)
Updated 02 March 2019

In major diplomatic win, Pakistan returns downed fighter pilot to India

  • Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman handed over to Indian authorities around 9pm on Friday evening
  • Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had promised his return as a "gesture of goodwill"

ISLAMABAD: Captured Indian Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman was handed back to India on Friday, two days after he was captured by the Pakistan army and his jet downed, the Pakistani foreign office said, in a gesture seen as the first step towards dialling down the worst standoff between the two countries in decades. 

“Wing Commander Abhinandan, Indian POW [prisoner of war], returned to India today, as committed by PM [Prime Minister Imran] khan in his address to joint sitting of parliament, yesterday,” foreign office spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal said in a Twitter post.

On Tuesday, Pakistan said Indian jets had violated the Line of Control (LoC) border which splits the disputed Kashmir valley into two parts, one administered by Pakistan, the other by India. India said it hit a militant training camp inside Pakistan on Tuesday morning but Pakistan said Indian jets were barely in its airspace for a few minutes before being chased away by Pakistani warplanes without any damage to lives or infrastructure.

The next day, Pakistan said it had carried out airstrikes on six targets across its border with India, shot down two Indian warplanes and arrested an enemy pilot, raising the possibility of further escalation.

But during a joint session of parliament on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the captured pilot would be handed back to India the next day as a “gesture of peace.”

Pakistani TV channels showed Varthaman walking across the border at Wagah around 9p.m. on Friday night, accompanied by Pakistani paramilitary rangers. He was straight-backed and somber-faced, and wearing a crisp white shirt, a navy blazer and grey pants. As he crossed over into India, an Indian officer shook his hand and another walked him onto Indian soil as the iron gates of the border gate slammed shut.

Varthaman has become the face of latest tensions between India and Pakistan. The arch-rivals have fought three wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Two of them were over the disputed Kashmir region on their border.

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

Updated 14 September 2020

Thumbs-up: Pakistani woman defies risks to hitchhike across the country

  • Leaving corporate security behind, Maria Soomro has traveled solo around the country since the pandemic began
  • She documents her travels and uses YouTube and Instagram to provide tips on how to solo travel as a woman

RAWALPINDI: A few months ago, while doing a stable job in the banking sector, Maria Soomro decided to act on her gut instinct and leave behind the monotony and routine of her daily life to follow her dream of hitchhiking around Pakistan. 

30-year-old Soomro hails from Karachi and has been working in the banking sector since completing her university education. The corporate job gave her 40 days of annual leave which she utilized for travel, though she felt that something was missing. 

“I wasn’t fully able to immerse myself in enjoyment or the experience,” she told Arab News over the phone while traveling through Gilgit-Baltistan. “When I travel, I go to remote villages, off-the-beaten-path type places and get to know the locals, actually spend some time understanding where I am and who I am surrounded by. Five or 15 days don’t allow for that.” 

The idea of spending time doing what she loved as opposed to sitting at a desk kicked Soomro into high-gear. “I opted to turn the documenting of my travels, which I had been doing since 2015 on Instagram (@MariaSoomro_) and eponymous YouTube channel, into my full-time job.” 

Maria Soomro smiles for the camera in a ride she hitched near Burzil Pass, part of the historic caravan route between Srinagar and Gilgit on her Instagram page on September 11, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

In March of this year, Soomro headed out on her hitchhiking journey. Being a solo female traveler in Pakistan is a steadily growing trend, though a woman who hitchhikes is almost unheard of.

 “Budget traveling is my focus. The largest chunk of your budget ends up being spent on accommodation and transportation, and both of these things can be covered when you’re hitchhiking,” said Soomro. 

But her travel ethos is another reason hitchhiking was so attractive. To her, there is no better way than this to know the places one is traveling through. 

“This is a shortcut to get to know local communities, be it Pakistan or another country. When you ask for a lift, you get a special introduction to their home, their points of view, and you learn from them,” she said, adding that one can build contacts as a bonus who can be assets to solo travelers. 

Soomro estimates that her hitchhiking adventure has allowed her to meet over 300 people, all of whom, she maintains, contact through social media. “The more people you meet the more stories you hear and the more people you can share your own story with,” said she. 

Maria Soomro shares tips and tricks on solo travel including how to keep one's tent from blowing away in a shot she shares from Golden Beach, Balochistan, on her Instagram page on June 14, 2020. (Picture courtesy of Maria Soomro) 

Instead of merely asking for a lift, Soomro has taken each ride as an opportunity to educate on what hitchhiking is, why she is doing it, and why she is traveling Pakistan. 

“It’s not very common here and I want to change that. The general consensus is that Pakistan is not safe, in particular for women, to travel alone.” 

When asked about how safe she has felt while traveling, Soomro said she follows “her gut instinct, assessing each ride” but also stressed the importance of “being prepared,” such as carrying personal protection equipment like pepper spray and knife. 

“My advice to Pakistanis who want to follow into my footsteps would be to take time to understand this kind of travel first and do not go straight for hitching,” she said. “Travel in groups and learn the areas you want to visit, know how roads work and, like any other passion, take time to educate yourself.” 

Soomro is doing her part in educating travel hopefuls on her YouTube channel and Instagram page with tips on how to hitchhike, where to go, and how to pitch a tent to withstand winds and what type of rides to expect around the country at present. 

“There are very few people who follow their passion in the world, and I am one of those crazy people since I thought I could do it,” said Soomro. “I am a free bird and travel is a part of me. I can’t imagine my life without this.”